Despite two colleagues saying the city already has too much debt and there are cheaper alternatives for homeowners and that most funding could be delayed, six council members gave second passage to revenue bonds to extend the sewers and upgrade the treatment plant.
The Monday night vote was preceded with an unusual public comment portion, although the hearing was closed prior to first passage last month. The two bonds passed on a 7-2 vote back then. Six votes were needed for second passage. Ward 2 Councilman Thomas Chadronet was not there and, in spite of pressure to do so, none of the others changed their vote. Had only one changed their mind, the measures would have failed.
But that didn’t happen.
The two financing packages will provide $33 million to extend sewers to six areas of the city, with some projects not starting until as late as 2020, and $23 million for the treatment plant work. Work on additional facilities, to reduce phosphorous and nitrogen in compliance with Department of Environmental Management (DEM) regulations, would start next year. Simultaneously, the Warwick Sewer Authority will heighten Pawtuxet River levees to avert a recurrence of the March 2010 flooding that caused more than $11 million in damages.
Many residents who addressed the council at the first hearing returned Monday to summarize their arguments against the bonds.
John Kennedy said 47 percent of user rates currently goes to paying for debt expenses.
“Will everybody pay, or just the ratepayers? What you guys want to do is suck the dollars out of my wallet,” he said.
Roger Durand likewise focused on the cost.
“Who is going to pay for it? We should know,” he said.
Ward 5 resident Carol Moore said she still wants sewers, “but I don’t have the money. I need to know what it is going to cost.”
The sewer review commission created by Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur met 14 times and devoted over 50 hours to studying the issue. They projected costs at $15,000 to $30,000 per homeowner. The septic systems option cost the same but would be virtually impossible for some neighborhoods because of soil conditions and lot size. These properties currently have cesspools that must be phased out under DEM regulations.
Ken Fish, who lives in the Bayside area, faces the dilemma. He assured the council he wants sewers, despite Lois Graydon reporting that she polled a portion of the area and found virtually everyone opposed to the costs of sewers.
Councilmen Steve Merolla (D-Ward 9) and Joseph Solomon (D-Ward 4) reiterated arguments made last month. Solomon ran down the list of sewer extension projects, with sewer authority executive director Janine Burke providing the estimated construction schedule and cost of each project. Solomon reasoned that $11 million would cover those projects that could be started reasonably soon and that the council could approve additional bonding as needed.
Ladouceur countered that the council would have the final say on release of the funds and that postponing approval of the full $33 million could push up costs and jeopardize DEM delay of the mandate to phase out shoreline cesspools in Highland Beach, Longmeadow and Riverview – neighborhoods within the Bayside projects. Solomon’s motion to amend the bond to $11 million failed on a 6-2 vote.
“We can achieve the goals without strapping our residents,” said Merolla.
He put the cost of paying off sewer assessments over 20 years at $60,000 and asked, “Would I want to spend $30,000 [the cost of a septic system] or $60,000? We all know the answer.”
He was also critical of the sewer authority’s performance, saying prior projects ran over budget and added to the city’s debt.
“I can’t vote for something that can be achieved for less,” he said.
Ward 8 Councilman Joseph Gallucci, who introduced the measure for the sewer bonding, once again argued his ward generates more than 30 percent of tax revenues, yet has been bypassed in the most recent sewer extension projects. Gallucci has proposed sewers for the O’Donnell Hill neighborhood, even though some residents say they don’t want them. Reportedly, Gallucci has said he would poll the neighborhood on the subject.
Durand suggested that the same procedure be used before moving ahead with construction projects in other neighborhoods. In addition to three Bayside projects and O’Donnell Hill, the work to be done includes Phase III of Governor Francis and Northwest Gorton Pond.
Ladouceur said the sewer review commission would continue to meet to work on ways to reduce costs and find ways to help those who can least afford sewers. He also saw an oversight role for the commission, adding that the sewer authority “can’t continue to operate as an autonomous body.”
The morning following the vote, Ladouceur said, “There’s no doubt the council did the right thing.” He said the major job of the commission now is to find ways to reduce the costs.
Asked for his take on the council vote, Mayor Scott Avedisian replied in an email, “I think that there has been a lot of energy and enthusiasm created by the sewer review committee. Maybe there is a way to keep them engaged in the oversight and governance of the authority.”
There’s little doubt that will happen.
The review commission is slated to now review the authority’s enabling legislation with an eye to changing the method of assessments from a linear foot to a unit cost and providing deferred payments for those who recently installed septic systems. Governance of the authority is also on the agenda.
Those voting for the revenue bonds were Ladouceur, Gallucci, Charles Donovan Jr., Donna Travis, Camille Vella-Wilkinson and Steve Colantuono. Solomon and Merolla voted against both bonds.